Hong Kong University recently published research showing that UK student suicide rates have risen by 56% in the last decade to 10.3 per 100,000 meaning students are now more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The research is the latest coverage on a mental health crisis raging in higher education, after a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute last year which stated some universities needed to triple their funding of the issue.
Upon reflection, the saddest part of reading this article wasn’t the content of it so much as how I felt myself responding, with disappointment but certainly not surprise. I find such articles trite and prosaic to read as it seems so obvious to me – I feel like I’ve been forced to sit through this crisis with a front-row seat. My personal experiences, from teenage years to attending university, have made me acutely aware of how mental health has become a pandemic sewn into the collective consciousness of students. It would be intellectually dishonest of me if I didn’t make it clear this is a multifaceted problem which I can’t begin to cover in one article. But in my experience, the expectations of university are a significant problem.
I feel like I’ve been forced to sit through this crisis with a front-row seat
It’s no secret that university life is incredibly stressful. For a lot of students, university is incredibly daunting as they are uprooted from their comfortable homes to suddenly navigate terrain they’ve never sailed in alone. Many students will have been at the top of their school classes, and the culture shock of that being taken away doesn’t help. It isn’t an issue of arrogance, but an unavoidable consequence of being pushed to become academically successful. Self-worth can become imbued purely by grades and UMS scores. I felt as if I were expected to know everything and attain high grades with no questions asked, which is an unsustainable mind-set for anyone.
As this illusion was shattered, the problem was exacerbated by other unfounded expectations. The ideal student, especially at a top ten university such as Warwick, must be academically gifted, intellectually curious, and socially enigmatic; students live to fulfil the prophecy of having the time of their life at university by working hard and playing hard.
They’ll maintain their excellent academic track-record with no qualms (because they’re so intelligent nothing assigned or tested will faze them), and they’ll bolster this with some impressive extracurricular work by becoming president of a society or winning a prestigious summer internship, and somehow end each day drinking and partying like Mark Antony. Except that isn’t a reasonable standard to hold anyone to. For students already feeling unmoored by leaving behind their stable life of family and friends, it can be intimidating to find hundreds of societies and feel the obligation to pick one to become regularly involved in.
Students live to fulfil the prophecy of having the time of their life at university by working hard and playing hard
It’s easy to feel detached if you’re someone who doesn’t want to go clubbing or drink copious amounts of alcohol. Especially when the inevitable questions about universities, societies, and relationships arise from relatives that unintentionally hold a mirror for you to see your imperfections and inadequacies.
For me, it felt lonely. And not just in the literal sense of spending hours at a desk restlessly wondering when exams would end this, but mentally isolating to realise I wasn’t able to fulfil such expectations. It’s worryingly easy for mental health to decline as one descends into a smorgasbord of self-deprecating thoughts under the weight of social expectations. It’s about time we interrogated such social expectations and asked ourselves what value they really have. Is this really an acceptable state of affairs?